During the two-week countdown to the iPad release, for reasons I cannot fully comprehend, I was consumed with anticipation and the need to buy one. Honestly, I am aware that I tend to possess a childlike excitement for various things, like the arrival of a movie that I want to see (e.g. How to Raise a Dragon, Julie and Julia) but the iPad launch completely hit my “little kid on Christmas morning” nerve. Worried that the line to pick up my pre-reserved device would be too long, I showed up outside the NYC 14th Street Apple Store at 6:12am. At about 9:20am my purchase was complete, and I was headed home to try the thing out.
48 hours later, it’s time to write down some of my reactions to this device that has generated so much buzz and so many blog posts and news stories. I’m going to tackle this blog posting in a slightly random way: breaking my reaction into small, isolated snippets.
My Biggest Disappointment: Missing Apostrophe
The first thing I wanted to try out was typing. After all, one thing that just kills me on the iPhone is trying to type anything of substance. While I was waiting in line for 3 hours on Saturday, I tried to write a blog article using the WordPress app on my iPhone. After five minutes I simply abandoned the exercise. If I’m going to type more than three sentences, I just have to have a real two-handed keyboard.
When I started up my iPad, the first thing I tried to do was to type a sample email message to my partner. I found that I could type with both hands relatively comfortably, but I kept tripping over one problem time and time again: although four punctuation marks are available on the primary keypad (period, comma, question mark, exclamation mark) I couldn’t type an apostrophe without going into the secondary keyboard.
I consider this a horrible design mistake. The English language makes frequent use of the apostrophe in the spelling of some of our most common words. Contractions like I’m and it’s and couldn’t are just too common. I can’t write a paragraph without needing one. If it weren’t for this single flaw, I would say the iPad’s on-screen keyboard was perfectly sufficient.
Where is the New York Times App?
One of the most talked about Apps for the iPad has been the New York Times reader. Steve Jobs had the New York Times reader as one of the initial iPad App demos during his iPad unveiling. At that event NYT developer Jennifer Brook demonstrated the NYT reader app on the iPad. I assumed that there would be a fully iPad optimized NYT experience ready for us on Saturday, and I was excited because the NYT iPhone App is my most frequently used app. (I like reading the news on the subway on my daily commute.)
I went to the App Store and saw this strange “New York Times Editor’s Choice” app for the iPad that only displayed a random assortment of about 6-9 articles. (Interestingly, if you looked closely, the typeset lines of this digital mini-edition were not evenly vertically spaced, as though this were a roughly cut-and-paste mock-up.) The only other NYT reader was the original iPhone app that had to run in the compatibility mode, which actually provides a rather ugly reading experience.
I was confused by both the lack of an iPad NYT App, and the lack of clarification (both at the App store and on the Internet in general) about what was going on. Was I looking in the wrong place? Was I supposed to buy a digital Times subscription in the iBookstore instead?
iPhone compatibility mode is unpleasant
This isn’t really a complaint as much as a simple observation: I hate running old iPhone apps in the compatibility mode. In the 1x display mode they just sit in a small window in the middle of the screen. In 2x display mode the text is jarringly pixelated. I was surprised to see that the iPad was able to perform any font-smoothing on text in this emulation mode.
My own personal observation: I will simply not use an app if it hasn’t been optimized. Now I’m sure that most popular applications will have “universal mode” updates in the near future that resolve this. (This will probably create some confusion in developers as they decide whether to go the “universal” mode or the “cheap version for iPhone and more expensive ‘HD version’ for the iPad” mindset. We’ll have to see which way that goes.)
iBookstore and Digital Media Confusion
I’m a little underwhelmed by the iBookstore’s ePub document format. Now this is probably just an issue of my own lack of awareness, but I thought ePub documents would have cool interactive media functionality that would change the way I consumed media. I thought that I would go to the iBookstore as the source for next-generation magazines and newspapers and books. I heard about a book about the Periodic Table of the Elements that was cool and dazzling, and again assumed it was a title I would buy from the iBookstore.
As it turns out, ePub seems to be a rather simple format, suited for traditional forms of fiction and non-fiction, but I’m not even sure it’s suited for things like programming books with various code samples, tables, cross-references, etc. (I could be wrong about this. As a matter of fact, I could find zero computer books on the iBookstore. If I want to read one of the Twilight books I’m in the right place, but if I want to read something more serious, I might be left wanting.
(Actually, my first purchase was going to be Neil Stephenson’s Diamond Age because it is all about a futuristic digital book, but sadly there weren’t any Stephenson titles available for me to buy.)
So if I want digital magazines or various next-generation media, it appears they are just going to be standalone iPad apps. I guess that’s okay, but I still find it confusing as to where (App store or iBookstore) I am supposed to go when buying or reading media. In my opinion, this lacks consistency.
O’Reilly Safari Bookshelf works very nicely
One quick note while I’m mentioning computer texts: the O’Reilly Safari bookshelf works wonderfully on the iPad. For a computer programmer, this subscription-based digital bookshelf has been a godsend, and in HTML mode these books are now a joy to read. I always hated reading them on the laptop. The other page display mode uses Flash, which as everyone has already heard doesn’t and wont run on the iPad, so that isn’t available on the iPad, but I didn’t consider this a loss.
Although I am pleased with the Safari Bookshelf on the iPad (using the Safari browser) I must have an active Internet (Wi-Fi) connection to use it. I hope that O’Reilly makes an iPad app where I can store and read my books “offline”, but that’s relatively minor.
PDF Reading is frustrating
As a programmer, I have a library of dozens of large PDF documents (mostly Java specification documents, but also Open Source reference docs) that I read all the time. I had assumed that the iPad would have a very good built-in PDF reader with table of contents references (like Mac’s Preview) etc. and some means for storing my library of documents on the iPad.
I was completely wrong. So I figured I would be able to hack some sort of compromise by mailing the PDF documents to myself and using Mail to access them. In fact, the iPad doesn’t cache the PDF attachment, so again without an active Wi-Fi connection I was disconnected from reading my PDFs.
Fortunately, there’s an app called iAnnotate PDF. This actually stores my PDF library and allows me to annotate (highlight & make notations) my documents. This has become my favorite “must have” app.
Document Storage and Data Access
I think Apple really has a flaw in their conceptual iPad/iPhone design when it comes to documents and data. Each application is a silo; it stores its data locally and sharing or saving or syncing documents or data is a nightmare.
For the three iWork apps (Pages, Numbers, Keynote) you have to manually “attach” your documents to iTunes or save and share them via an iWork website. (Disclaimer: I haven’t tried the iWork site yet.) If you want to access and manage all the documents in your daily life, this is going to be impractical.
For applications that don’t use documents but have certain data-sets, there’s a bizarre “manual syncing” dance that you have to go through. Examples of this can be seen in the personal database app Bento or the personal productivity app Things or the previously mentioned iAnnotate PDF. You have to install and run a little “server service” on your computer that will connect to the iPad via Wi-Fi and manage all synchronization that way.
I’m stunned that Apple is forcing the use of this klunky paradigm. Especially when are they could be leveraging things like the Apple “Sync” technology or the iDisk online document management. If Apple enabled these as data/document sharing mechanisms, they could sell even more MobileMe subscriptions.
Few Good Gesture-Based Apps, Poor UI Design
One of the reasons I wanted to try out the iPad was to see how Apple would revolutionize the old, tired user interface paradigms with challenging products like Numbers (the spreadsheet program) and Keynote (the presentation program). As everyone knows, Apple excels at revolutionary design.
The iWork applications don’t disappoint. I’m really jazzed by the transformational user experience that the iPad delivers. The iPhone was the tip of the iceberg here, but its small screen was very limiting. The iPad has the potential to really change the way we interact with a computer.
BUT… how many developers out there can match Apple’s masterful design skills? I suspect the answer is “precious few”. I noticed this with iPhone Apps: a good majority of them are massively hierarchical screens with drill-down lists after drill-down lists that make the user’s interaction with data slow and laborious. (Maybe less laborious than would be the case with Windows Mobile, but that’s little consolation.)
What I think we are going to see is a herd of developers rushing to make iPad apps that will lack any good UI design. This is understandable (good UI design is hard) but I think people need to adjust their expectations when they consider how rapidly the iPad will change the computing landscape.
On the positive side, I’ve always felt that “good” would come from more developers learning the beauty of Cocoa/XCode design. The Cocoa (formerly NeXTStep) framework is a phenomenal platform that enables programmers to become dramatically more productive. Once you have a bunch of programmers comfortable with Cocoa and Objective-C, you’ll start seeing more “Killer Apps” for the Mac and it’s mobile cousins, and gradually you’ll see an improvement of software design.
Superior Web Browsing Experience
Let’s conclude this blog on a positive note. I have got to say that Steve Jobs was right: the iPad is the best web browsing experience out there—even if it does lack Flash support. There’s something intuitively natural about swiping a page up and down instead of using a scroll-bar or scroll-wheel. The mouse/trackpad is an outdated concept, and I don’t find myself missing it.
In fact, there’s something indescribably intimate about gesture-based web browsing. I find myself thoroughly enjoying reading web pages via the iPad, and this is a complete surprise to me. Whereas I found Safari on the iPhone sufficient for general web browsing, it was still too limited to be a threat to the laptop/desktop. The iPad is really a game-changer here.
The Blogosphere and the iPad
Here’s my last iPad observation for the day: I have read just about every iPad review that was written over the last few weeks, and I’m surprised how little insight was provided by the various journalists and pundits. Most of what was said was just an echo-chamber repetition. What surprises me the most about all these observations I’ve just written is the fact that they were surprises. Between the raves and the pans, everything has been (and continues to be) rather generic.